Youth unemployment: what can we learn from Europe?

Germany and the Netherlands provide lessons, but we can't copy their approach wholesale.

German apprentices at work
German apprentices at work in Seimens. Photograph: Getty Images

Speaking at the launch of The Work Foundation’s Missing Million programme, David Miliband laid part of the blame for the rise in youth unemployment on the "chaotic landscape" faced by young people not bound for university. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Strong vocational systems in places like the Netherlands and Germany have served to keep youth unemployment consistently low despite the recession.

We all know that youth unemployment is a big problem – despite a slight recent fall there are still over one million young people out of work. The recession is only one part of the picture. Youth unemployment has been rising since 2003, which many will find surprising given these were the "good times" characterised by a sustained period of economic growth. The youth unemployment problem therefore cannot be explained by economic difficulties alone – its nature is both cyclical and structural. Unfortunately this means that the issue will remain with us even beyond today’s frosty economic climate.

The UK is certainly not alone in crisis – there are other European countries with much higher rates of unemployment. For instance in Spain, youth unemployment is staggeringly high, with half of young people unemployed. The UK itself currently sits around the European average, however in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands the rate has remained consistently low, with fewer than one in ten young people seeking work. Part of the explanation for the comparatively poor performance of the UK must be economic, but it is clear from longer trend data that this is only part of the answer.

Speaking at the event, Professor David Bell quoted Klaus Zimmerman who emphasised the strength of the German apprenticeship system, which he compared to a:

Gigantic microeconomic management exercise that involves all the relevant stakeholders in society.

In the UK, as the government recognises, the quality of apprenticeships is mixed. Currently, the success rate on apprenticeships is lower than other types of vocational skills training – although this is an improvement from a decade ago. Apprenticeships in the UK are much shorter than in some other countries, lasting between one and two years, compared with a norm of three years or longer in Germany and Austria. Another central difference with other countries is employer attitudes. Just 8 per cent of UK employers offer them, compared with a third in Australia – among the lowest in the developed world.

The rebuilding of apprenticeship began under the previous Labour Government and is being grown further by the Coalition. But we begin from a very low base, and it is not just the quantity and quality of the system that it is questionable - the lack of clear pathways into further education or work for those not attending university is compounding the problem, which David Miliband compared to a “field of unmarked landmines”. Part of the strength of the German system, Zimmerman argues, is the focus on detail and the co-ordination of all elements of a young person’s journey.

It is this that makes the difference, not, as Zimmerman said:

Lofty white papers or grandiose policy announcements issued in the national capital.

In Germany the system is built from the bottom-up, involving the whole community. While we have to recognise that we can’t entirely replicate their approach in the UK, we are lacking neither the organisations committed to the problem nor the political will to act. Ultimately, the focus has to be on the experience of each young person, and it is paramount that we ensure a continuity of support between school and the world of work – it is here that we can have the greatest impact.